The OC Power Authority is finally getting ready to set its electricity rates, a process over a year in the making that’s seen the agency come under intense scrutiny from the public with questions on transparency and best practices.
The agency had a rough first year, with numerous questions on transparency, how much power would cost and concerns over top executives, capped off by the abrupt resignation of their chief operating officer just before the holidays.
The authority is the county’s first community choice energy program, a system implemented throughout California that lets local governments buy and sell power with the goal of increasing the amount of renewable energy offered to residents and investing the profits in local programs.
Currently, the cities of Irvine, Fullerton, Buena Park and Huntington Beach have signed on, with the OC Board of Supervisors signing on to start receiving power in 2023 for unincorporated county land.
At the board’s December 21 special meeting discussing employee benefits, multiple board members spoke up and said that everything is different at the agency because it’s not a regular public agency, despite being funded exclusively by taxpayers at this time.
“We’re not in a typical public agency,” said board chair and Irvine City Councilman Mike Carroll. “This is not a civil service…this is about as private as a public agency can get.”
Board member Mike Posey agreed with him.
“Our income comes from the ratepayers, not the taxpayers.”
Top Leader Resigns Just Before Launch
Antonia Castro-Graham, the agency’s chief operating officer and longtime supporter of the program, handed in her resignation on Dec. 3 saying she was leaving “with a heavy heart,” in her resignation letter.
Castro-Graham fought to get the program built for years, helping start the original working group of cities that would become the power authority when she worked in Huntington Beach, and called her position as second in command a “dream job.”
“Since 2017, I have endeavored to create and implement a community choice energy program in Orange County,” Castro-Graham wrote. “Sadly, I can no longer work at a place where I am not respected, thus I have chosen to seek employment elsewhere.”
The agency’s board of directors haven’t issued any comments on Castro’s resignation, and didn’t acknowledge they’d just lost one of their senior staffers at their Dec. 14 board meeting.
Concerns Over CEO
While Castro-Graham has not stated why she left publicly, much of the public discourse has centered on her relationship with CEO Brian Probolsky.
Probolsky, a long time political operative who served as chief of staff to three different county supervisors, first came into the spotlight after the authority’s board of directors hired him to run the fledgling authority, despite no experience in electric utilities or a college degree.
According to his LinkedIn page, Probolsky is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in business at Brandman University.
Castro-Graham’s departure came just after a hot mic at a board meeting recorded her speaking to another staffer saying “Brian’s totally flipping out,” as the other speaker assured her she wasn’t going to get fired.
Probolsky has also experienced problems with the county’s HR department, after investigators sanctioned him for threatening staffers who spoke to them about him clocking hours as a business practices manager while also working as a board member for the Moulton-Niguel Water District in 2015.
He was also investigated in 2016 for his work on Supervisor Andrew Do’s reelection campaign while still receiving a full time salary from the county. He was never formally reprimanded, but left Do’s office shortly after the 2016 election for the county’s Waste and Recycling Department.
Since then, there have been multiple calls for an investigation into Castro-Graham’s departure from clean energy advocates that have gone from some of the agency’s biggest fans to its most outspoken critics.
Kathleen Treseder, cofounder of the group OC Clean Power and Irvine city council candidate, was one of the agency’s biggest fans in the beginning and now openly campaigns against it in cities who were considering joining up, bringing up repeated transparency concerns and questioning Probolsky’s expertise.
“I’m just really disappointed in how it’s been going. I hope that the leadership is able to correct course but I feel like the residents can’t really take their eyes off it for now and for the foreseeable future,” Treseder said. “I won’t sign up as long as Brian Probolsky is the CEO.”
Ayn Craciun, a policy advocate with the Climate Action Campaign who also fought to create the agency for years, said while she’ll never give up on the program, its first year wasn’t pretty.
“It’s been a rough start,” Craciun said. “We believe the community is counting on us and our role is to watchdog OCPA and the public’s interest … but we absolutely believe in the community choice business model.”
The advocates aren’t alone.
Lake Forest initially joined the agency, then backed out.
San Clemente didn’t even consider joining up with the power authority when they opted to pursue a community choice energy program in October in San Diego County.
The only reference to the agency came from Councilman Gene James, who said he had “no interest in going north and dealing with that Irvine crap.”
Another major question that’s plagued the power authority’s early days is a lack of transparency.
Originally, the agency wasn’t posting recordings of its board meetings for the first few months of 2021, which they later changed after repeated complaints from residents.
Yet videos from January to May are still unavailable.
The power authority also hasn’t required many of its contractors to file conflict of interest paperwork, according to a Voice of OC records request that found none of the contractors hired before August filed the paperwork.
It took months for the agency to get its conflict of interest rules approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
But Probolsky has the power to decide which part time consultants need to disclose and which ones don’t.
It also remains unclear whether or not the agency is engaged in litigation with the California Public Utilities Commission, the chief state agency in charge of regulating the program.
The agency hasn’t addressed the matter publicly yet aside from a closed session discussion at their Nov. 9 meeting, with their attorney Ryan Baron saying a discussion behind closed doors is actually the most transparent method they could use.
“(Closed session) gives the public notice of the topic while allowing you to be briefed by legal counsel and have confidential discussions,” Baron said. “It can be done through a confidential attorney client privilege memo … none of that would be public, none of that would be noticed.”
Even board members have pointed out that the agency sometimes posts its agendas too late for the public to review.
At their special meeting on Tuesday Dec. 21, board member Farrah Khan said she wanted more time to review the agenda than just the two days she’d had since it arrived on a Sunday, which included votes on the agency’s implementation plan and employee benefits packages.
“This is a lot to take in during this meeting,” Khan said at the meeting.
The power authority is set to hit the ground running at the start of this year, with plans to set their official rates on Jan. 11.
While agency leaders have claimed over the past several years the authority would be able to offer power at slightly lower prices than Southern California Edison, it remains unclear if they will be able to follow through on that promise.
Member cities will also be choosing which of the three power options to offer their residents as the default option, giving residents a choice of 38%, 70% and 100% renewable energy.
The agency could also discuss changing its bylaws in the new year after repeated requests by board members to clarify or change parts of their founding documents.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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